Entries for a Contest

A person sitting alone at a small table in the window of a café. It’s a recurring image, showing up in literature and paintings again and again. It’s a modern trope, amenable to interpretation as loneliness, independence, nostalgia, anticipation, even change or surprise. I’ll try some examples.

I.
The man sat hunched into his coat, cupping his coffee in his hands as though he were cold. Usually people in this place threw their coats over the backs of their chairs — it was steam-heated by hissing old radiators. He looked uncomfortable in the window seat and he was, but it was the last seat in the place and he’d thought he’d better eat something. He hadn’t eaten since yesterday and it was beginning to muddle his thinking. A man of his sort had to stay alert. The window meant he was exposed to passersby and though they mostly hurried by without even glancing in, he had turned up his coat collar and his hat was pulled low over his face. It was awkward to look around at the other people inside, though he knew that that to them he was against the light and therefore only a silhouette, which was an advantage. After all, the danger might come from the inside as well as from the larger world outside where a person could throw a brick from a passing car or … shoot from an upstairs window. Just because it had never happened so far, that didn’t mean it wouldn’t.

II.
Tarantina liked to sit alone. She had long hair which she artfully tangled and wore long earrings — so it was lucky she had a swan’s neck that rose out of her collar so slender and curved. Her face was oval as a Modigliani and she was careful to dress in clothing slightly antique. In fact, she looked so intriguing that people — even women — really WANTED to sit down with her and find out what she thought. So she didn’t go into cafes unless there were plenty of tables so there would be no excuse for anyone to ask to sit with her. Then a few nights ago some people she didn’t know very well had been at her house, they all got a bit drunk on red wine, and when everyone went home she discovered that in the confusion someone had left his hat on her bust of Beethoven — a very nice brown fedora. She liked it a lot. In fact, she had worn it into the cafe and put it on the cane-backed chair opposite her to indicate the seat was saved for someone — a man. It was working well. Then a man came in who made her wonder whether it would look too much like an invitation if she took the hat off the chair. He started to pass by, then stopped and stared. “Hey, that’s my hat!”

III.
She was old and cranky but tried to look wise and eccentric. She wore galoshes all the time because her feet were cold and wound on her neck a muffler that she had knitted herself out of scraps of yarn. This was her favorite cafe because such straight, square, neatnik people came here for their trendy lattes and she liked to sit with her espresso and sneer at them. They were so pretentious, so predictably dressed, so phonily cheerful. All her life she had gone out of her way to avoid such folks, but now she carried a small notebook and took notes on them. “Why do they wear shoes that are so obviously uncomfortable?” “Where did ultrasuede go? For a while all the women wore ultrasuede jackets in candy colors and now they don’t.” They paid no attention to her at all. If she were lying in the street unconscious, they would step over her without comment.

IV.
It was one of those Starbucks that was really only a pretend version in the end of the Barnes & Noble at the big box store cluster. Still, it was better than a greasy spoon with a bunch of truck drivers and a waitress that called her “honey” or a fancy schmantsy little place where everyone knew each other and they talked back and forth between the tables. Better than coffee at Macdonalds. So she got her double skinny latte, with a lid that had a little sipping hole but too hot to drink without taking the lid off so it would cool a bit, and looked around for a little table. In the window sat a cowboy, an authentic tall cowboy with his cowboy hat tipped back from a white forehead and a plaid snap-button fancy-yoke cowboy shirt. He looked up and grinned at her. “Are you writing a book?” she asked. “Why, yes! This is the third volume of my memoirs!” Then she recognized Scotty Zion. [This is a REAl incident!]

IV.
His feathery white hair caught the sunlight and seemed lit from within. It was summer and he had not bothered with a hat. What did it matter if his face developed another skin cancer now? He was too old and the diagnosis he’d just gotten made it clear he didn’t have much time left — though it was likely to painful. In fact, he was seriously considering suicide. He smiled as he tried to remember what he knew about quick and not-too-messy ways of killing oneself. Hanging was so melodramatic. Pills and alcohol, maybe. Champagne or brandy? Have to fake insomnia to get the pills, but doctors were generous about prescribing for the old, esp. if they had good insurance. His smile grew broader as he thought of joining his wife in the afterlife. He wasn’t sure he believed in such a thing, but it was a pleasant fantasy and what was the harm? She was a round, warm, pink person — not just as an old lady but all her life. Almost all his life, too, come to that. They’d met as youngsters and had so much pleasure and fun over the years — nothing fancy or expensive, just jokes shared and hands held. When the kids came, they just made the circle a little bigger to include them and they had grown up safe and content. So what was a way to commit suicide without making them feel bad, as though it were their fault somehow.

Just then the farm wife who was annoyed at having to come to town to get parts for the combine — they wouldn’t be the right things somehow, as usual — lost control of the big truck she wasn’t used to driving and it crashed through the window. When the wrecker lifted the truck off the old man, he looked surprised — but he was smiling. The farm wife said she had swerved because there had seemed to be someone in front of her. Everyone said she was making it up.

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